A unique environmental plan for Florida: Gillum promises to actually crack down on polluters

October 8, 2018 7:00 am
algae bloom

John Moran photo

Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum released his environmental policy last week, and it differs markedly from his Republican opponent Ron DeSantis in many respects, including one very unique one: Gillum pledges to go after the polluters who are causing Florida’s disastrous water contamination.

It’s unusual to hear any Florida politician say we need to stop pollution at its source, even though everyone knows prevention is far cheaper than cleanup.

Florida has long abided by a pollute-now-pay-later policy. Rather than fund more inspections and government lawyers to go after polluters, Florida lets corporations stockpile toxic waste or spew it into our shared resources. Phosphate mining companies and power plants are allowed to pile up toxic waste in mounds (where it has collapsed into sinkholes) or dump it into pits (where it has seeped into groundwater).

When one such radioactive stockpile of phosphate mining waste grew dangerously close to spilling near Tampa, the state stepped in, loaded the waste into barges and dribbled it across the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, this was Florida’s official, shameful solution.

Corporations operating in Florida are allowed to dispose of their poisonous paper mill waste into rivers that flow into the Gulf and Atlantic. Towns and cities send “overflow” sewage and storm water into bays, rivers and oceans. Huge cattle operations “land-apply” manure (they prefer to call it “biosolids”) over fields, where it contaminates our groundwater and surface water every time it rains. Developers are allowed to build on the cheap by skipping central sewers and relying on septic tanks – which leak. The agri-industry applies chemical fertilizer that runs off, fueling algae outbreaks that turn our public waters putrid and smother aquatic life.

Yet you will hear instead about the millions our government is spending to “solve” environmental crises, especially from Gov. Rick Scott, now desperately trying to spray a Lysol coating on his odious record. Perhaps this tactic will work at the ballot box with a distracted public; it’s definitely not working out in the field.

Florida’s biggest “environmental” spending is for giant government engineering projects to move pollution from one place to another. One example is South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee – the second-largest inland lake in the United States. Industrial agriculture operations send runoff fouled by sewage, manure and fertilizer into the lake, then taxpayer-funded pumps and canals convey it through the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf and the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic.

It’s a form of water welfare for the corporate Big Ag investor class, because the pollution that comes off their land ends up as our public problem.

With all that grim reality as backdrop, Gillum’s campaign promises a fresh approach. His environmental plan says, flat out, “Mayor Gillum believes that the best solution for water pollution is prevention” and “We need to have a serious conversation about ensuring Florida’s business interests are the kind of responsible corporate citizens we need them to be, through whichever means are necessary” and “no corporate profit is worth sacrificing our clean air and water.”

These are fighting words among the political class that populates the Florida Legislature and the corporate lobbying corps. But they ought to be welcome words to any citizen who cares about clean water; to anyone outraged as we watch private profiteers trash our common natural resources.

Gillum pledges to set safer limits for so-called “nutrient” pollution (sewage, manure and fertilizer). The current regulations were drafted by polluter lobbyists, and – as we can clearly see on our devastated shorelines – they are weak and largely ineffective. The millions of taxpayer dollars Scott is now sending to devastated coastal communities may be enough to hire crews to shovel tons of dead fish off the beaches, but the saner policy is to set effective state pollution limits and enforce them.

Gillum wants to bring back Florida’s now-gutted growth management policies. This was a key common-sense Florida policy for decades until the Florida Legislature killed the entire program – as if the nation’s third-largest state didn’t need that sort of oversight anymore. Growth management is supposed to ensure that when development happens, it is properly planned so the very things that draw new people here aren’t trashed in the process.

Gov. Scott has gutted the state’s environmental agencies over eight years, Gillum pledges to shore them back up.This is incredibly important; you can’t protect the landscape that tourists come here to see unless you have scientists and experts administering strong environmental laws.

Of course, these are merely campaign promises, and we’ll have to wait and see what happens. It’s true that every election cycle, a parade of politicians stands in front of television cameras with the buggy Everglades as a backdrop and promises to protect “our precious natural resources.” It’s as predictable as kissing babies on the campaign trail.

What Gillum is saying is different. It’s specific, bold, and welcome.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.